Just when Microsoft had reason to think they might be ahead of the curve on something, Apple rolls up and beats them- hard- to the punch. When Windows 8 got its reveal this week, the world was abuzz at this new evolution for the venerable platform. Live tiles that act as widgets! Full touch integration! The best of mobile computing merged with the power of a desktop OS.
For once, Redmond was ahead of the curve. At least that's how it seemed for a couple of days, before today's WWDC 2011 keynote speech. Steve Jobs and Phil Schiller took to the stage and showed off OS X Lion and iOS 5. In an instant, my excitement over Windows 8 faded away. Apple is already there.
Lion adds over 250 features, but only ten of them were detailed today. Most seem to focus on bringing the convenience of mobile computing to Mac. With multitouch gestures, Lion -feels- like a mobile OS. And the full-screen apps with fading scrollbars bring that spartan iOS look to a larger screen. The new Mission Control looks like it would be right at home on a modern tablet.
Like Microsoft, Apple has realized that people need the ability to get a bird's eye view of what is going on in their computer. Android's notification menu and widgets are one way of conferring that info, as are Windows 8's tiles. Mission Control may be the best of the bunch. It displays every document you're looking at, all your open apps and all your widgets. You'll be able to flip through open browser pages and switch between apps in a way eerily reminiscent of the PlayBook's OS.
It's hard to see this announcement as anything but a death knell for the mouse. Apple is going whole hog on gestures here. Lion is optimized for a touchpad, and I don't think using a traditional mouse would be very comfortable at all. Microsoft is attempting to do the same thing, but there's no way they'll come out as strongly in favor of touch. Apple isn't worried about alienating anyone. They control Mac hardware. They have the freedom to push the touchpad.
Lion is dynamic. A PC OS with the sort of momentum we expect from our phone or tablet. Like Windows 8, it represents a break from tradition. Today's Keynote was about Apple embracing the future and shedding the past. Lion costs $29.99 instead of $129.99. It will only be available online.
An event like this really brings home the advantage Apple has due to their tight control of the Mac and iOS ecosystems. No other company on earth could upgrade their product line in such a tightly integrated way. iOS and OS X are converging, but they're doing it slowly. Rather than merge the operating systems, Apple is moving to integrate their functionality more tightly. If you snap a picture on your iPhone, it's shared across your devices. If you download a song or a movie from iTunes, you can access it with any Apple gadget.
One great strength of something like a desktop or notebook Mac is storage space. Many of you probably have hundreds of gigs of music on your machine that you didn't get through iTunes. Now you have a way to cheaply transfer all of that music into the cloud, and access it from all your gadgets.
Soon your iPad will be able to benefit fully from your Mac's giant hard drive. And your Mac will change to act a little bit more like that iPad. For one thing, all your open apps will autosave. Which means you'll be able to drop in and out of Pages on the desktop as easily as you would on your iOS device. No more cursing yourself for forgetting to save. No more losing work to power surges.
It's hard not to sit through an event like today's and not get a little worried about Windows 8. Microsoft's plans sound broadly similar- and that's a good thing- but we won't see a release until some time in 2012. Lion will be out in July. iOS 5 will ship in the Fall. Services like iCloud and iTunes Match are cheaper with Apple than anywhere else and much more functional besides. And Windows 8 isn't likely to cost $29.99 to anyone but a student.
Microsoft's made the interesting choice of using the same platform to attack the PC and tablet markets. Windows 8 is sort of a catch-all solution, since it will work on ARM chipsets. Microsoft sees the convergence of "PC' and "mobility" and tries to develop one software suite to rule it all.
Apple has decided to stick with two platforms, each optimized for a fundamentally different type of computing experience. They're bringing Mac and iOS together in the areas that matter. Always, the focus is on delivering content to you in a more convenient and intuitive manner. It's too early to say which strategy will work in the long run. But Cupertino is on one hell of a roll so far.